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6 min read

Five Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Control System Modernization Plan

Alarm alerts are flashing across you operator’s screen as the production line comes to a halt for the third time this week, and it is only Monday afternoon. As the plant floor supervisor, you look at the outdated operator interface, but as usual, you do not see a clear issue. So, you start checking the typical suspects – the 20-year-old I/O modules and the known vulnerabilities left by your vintage, and now unsupported, OS. You see the operators are running the system in manual mode to work around processes that can no longer be controlled automatically, and as a result, product quality is below benchmarks. While you work to get production running again you are counting down the days until your upcoming control system modernization project kicks off.

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Although many organizations with an aging control system such as this one are currently working on upgrade plans, we frequently see that these plans involve a straight conversion to address obsolescence. While these efforts will mitigate obsolescence issues, a straight migration will not allow you to make improvements to your control system that are likely also needed. Worse, you are wasting the opportunity to take advantage of planned capital investment and scheduled downtime to further improve uptime, optimize processes, and provide additional insights into your production system. The bottom line is, there are many improvements that can piggyback off an existing control system upgrade and can be implemented quickly and inexpensively. By not considering some of these changes as well, you are likely leaving a lot of quality gains on the table.

Based on our experience assisting customers across a variety of industries with control system modernization efforts, below are five areas beyond addressing obsolescence issues that we highly suggest evaluating for improvements during any control system modernization.


Upgrading an outdated and unsupported OS that is vulnerable to numerous cybersecurity threats is a big step in the right direction to protecting your OT network. In fact, it is common for enterprise IT-led cybersecurity initiatives to be the driving force behind a control system upgrade. Whether it is or not, in parallel with your upgrade there are additional cybersecurity initiatives that should be considered to further improve your organization’s cyber posture.

In general, if your system is serving data to the enterprise layer, the standards in place for the process control network (PCN) will converge with enterprise IT standards at the data interface. Since there are many differences between enterprise IT and OT network security requirements, during an upgrade, the policies and procedures in place should be reviewed to determine the best options.

A control system upgrade is also a great opportunity to evaluate all points of access and network connection points to the control system. Even if you think a system is air gapped, this air gap may be compromised often. For example, when a vendor is onsite to provide support, he or she may connect a laptop to a device. This means anything networked to that device within the control system has now been exposed to an external network. Another common scenario in today’s climate is the need for remote monitoring and troubleshooting of control networks. Since the PCN needs to remain protected from external threats, a strategy for managing and securing remote access may need to be developed and implemented as a part of your control system upgrade.

Reporting and Data Analytics

While you may have a tool in place to monitor overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) or key performance indicators (KPIs), have you stopped to ask yourself lately if you are looking at the correct data? And are you doing enough with that data? Data collected from OEE and KPI monitoring software can help manufacturers drive continuous improvement efforts and make it easier for site managers to figure out where to spend their time, money, and resources. Additionally, because newer data analytics software is configurable, there are numerous ways for everyone in the organization, from operators to executives, to better leverage plant floor information to make more informed business decisions.

Data Integrity

Data integrity requirements and improvements are another likely driving force for the capital investment for your upgrade project. A control system upgrade is a good time to examine if your system is collecting and storing the complete data you need, especially if you are a manufacturer in a regulated industry.

If you are questioning whether you may have a data integrity issue, consider the following questions about when a setpoint changes in your system:

  • Do you know who made the change?
  • Do you know when the change was made?
  • Do you know what the previous value was?
  • Do you know why the change was made?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you may need to make some changes to the way your control system is collecting and storing data. A control system upgrade or migration may be a good time to introduce domain security, such as usernames and passwords, to your HMIs, or an opportunity to examine disaster recovery procedures.

Alarm Rationalization

Too many manufacturers have active alarms on control systems that no one is doing anything about because the systems are just always in an alarm state. This can be a distraction for operators, or worse, could cause operators to ignore alarms entirely and not act on a critical alarm. A control system upgrade is the right time to address this issue and possibly perform an alarm rationalization.

By industry standards, an alarm is a malfunction, deviation, or abnormal condition that requires a response. Therefore, with a rationalized alarm system, each potential alarm point needs to be justified, documented, prioritized, and classified so that every alarm on the console is something an operator can and should act on. If the operator is not sure what to do with an alarm, there should be a quickly accessible document that explains possible reasons why the alarm occurred, potential impacts if it is not resolved in a timely manner (safety, environmental, financial, etc.), and what the operator should do to remediate the situation.

Operator Graphics that Promote Situational Awareness

If you are already engaged in a software upgrade, consider implementing high-performance operator graphics. A high-performance HMI provides important historical and contextual information to operators in addition to data on the state of the plant. This helps operators make informed decisions in real time regarding where the plant is likely to go that may lead to the operator saving a batch or preventing a shutdown. That single event can provide immediate return on investment for the implementation of improved graphics.

For example, your operator screen may show a tank graphic that contains single-moment-in-time data. Your operator might glance at the screen and see that level, pressure, and temperature are all within normal conditions. However, what they do not see is that the tank temperature has been steadily decreasing. Instead, an HMI with a simple trend of the temperature would alert the operator to take action even before it is too late. With better situational awareness through high-performance HMIs, plants can maximize uptime because operators have better data to make informed decisions.

Implementing Advanced Process Control or Model Predictive Control

Finally, it may also be time to ask if you are getting everything out of your automation system. Would your process benefit from advanced control algorithms such as advanced process control (APC) or model predictive control (MPC)? If any of the following scenarios seem familiar to you, making the switch to one of these advanced control methods is likely a good fit:

  • The control process cannot be fully modeled with a straight PID or cascaded PID
  • Operators consistently put control loops into manual mode because the automated loop cannot fully control the process
  • There is variability in the feedstock coming into the system

By implementing an advanced algorithm during your control system upgrade, you can save time and resources and better ensure the accuracy of your process.

Migrating from Old to New is Simply not Enough

At ACE, we frequently see potential customers start planning for a control system upgrade where they request that their new system work exactly like the current system. However, as we discuss the changes to features such as cybersecurity, control algorithms, and data reporting and analytics over the last 15 to 20 years since their last upgrade, we realize that is not what they really want. When you start to plan the modernization of your control system, take the time to talk with your integrator about other opportunistic site initiatives that you can pull into your upgrade effort.

Contact us today to see how ACE can help enhance your control system upgrade.